15 Oct 2015

Sugar dose could prevent baby brain damage

8:44 pm on 15 October 2015

The first New Zealand-led study into new-borns' blood sugar levels has found brain damage could be prevented if babies were treated for their low glucose levels earlier.

newborn baby

Photo: 123RF

Professor Jane Harding - lead researcher from the University of Auckland's Liggins Institute - said her team wanted to find out what blood sugar levels could be considered "too low in new-born babies".

She said the study showed it was unlikely for the baby to be affected "long-term".

"If the baby has regular blood monitoring, to monitor their blood sugar levels and are treated to keep their levels above the safety threshold that we have determined in the study which is 2.6 milimoles per litre, then those babies seem to be protected from any potential (brain) damage due to the low sugars, so that's a very reassuring message for families."

The research was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, and found up to 30 percent of new-borns were at risk of hyclocemia or having a lack of sugar in their bloodstream.

Findings showed 15 percent of babies that lacked the essential sugar would be affected to some degree and of that, 10 percent needed intensive care.

Stable glucose levels of 2.6 milimoles per litre of blood during infancy would help prevent future developmental problems and regular screening in the first 48 hours after birth would ensure blood sugar levels did not drop too low.

If they did drop, food and other sugar-rich products could be used to increase blood levels which would minimise the risks of a brain injury developing.

Professor Harding said premature babies were at higher risk of low-blood sugar levels as were babies that were born to a diabetic mother or were smaller or larger than expected.

She said infants with fluctuating or higher blood glucose levels were prone to having problems as they developed "but we need more research".

"We need to be aiming to keep babies blood sugar levels stable, not over treating or under treating but just keeping them nice and stable if we can."

Professor Harding urged parents not too worry as most babies were able to keep their sugar levels stable, but feeding and "intravenous glucose" supplements would be used when necessary.

Low glucose levels were usually only a short-term problem following birth and regular monitoring while they were young was advised.

However she said the types of monitors used in hospitals were not always accurate and sometimes blood tests needed to be repeated.

"But most places in New Zealand are following fairly standard practice and they're doing the kinds of things that we've shown with this study look like they protect the babies brain."

If sugar levels were too low for a long time brain damage could occur and Professor Harding believes hospitals treated all at risk infants.

The study was partly funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand and included 404 at risk babies born at Waikato Hospital between 2006 and 2010. They were studied at birth, and then again when they were two years old.